Witchcraft beliefs: the bid to stop the harmful practices that lead to mutilation, torture and death
The UN’s first expert workshop on witchcraft and human rights has paved the way for greater support for people with albinism, who face severe persecution driven by the superstitious belief that their body parts possess magical qualities. We spoke with Senior Lecturer in Social Work, Dr Jean Burke, who was one of more than 100 experts invited to take part in the workshop.
“He cut my right hand first and when he finished he flung it to his accomplices. Then he started cutting my left hand as he shouted at me to be silent. He said all they needed were the hands, nothing more.”
Mariamu Staford, a woman with albinism from rural Tanzania, shares the story of the night two men broke into her family home and brutally cut off her hands with a machete. She was one of several survivors to speak at a ground-breaking workshop on witchcraft and human rights held at the United Nations in Geneva last September.
Contributing to the workshop was ACU’s Senior Lecturer in Social Work, Dr Jean Burke, who has conducted research on issues facing people with albinism in East Africa.
“I had heard Mariamu’s story before, and there are many others like hers that have come to light in Tanzania since the first incidents were brought to international media attention a decade ago,” Dr Burke said.
Albinism is a rare hereditary condition that results in a lack of pigmentation in skin, hair and eyes. It is more common in Tanzania than worldwide, with estimates that one in every 1400 people is affected, compared with one in every 17,000 internationally.
In some East African countries, the blood and body parts of people with albinism are sometimes seen as a precious commodity that can be sold for large sums of money, due to the belief that potions containing their limbs can bring wealth and good luck.
It is unclear if the trafficking of body parts is a recent or longstanding phenomenon, but what is certain is that the practice is rooted in witchcraft beliefs and rituals.
“A witch doctor or traditional diviner might say to a customer, ‘If you want great wealth and you want to be blessed, then you have to get some powerful medicine’, and there is this belief that the blood and limbs of people with albinism possesses a supernatural power,” Dr Burke said.
“Typically the attackers will come at night, and they might have a local person to show them where the person with albinism lives — mostly children because they’re easier to attack — and they’ll go in and drag the kid away and chop off their arm.”
Since 2006, more than 520 attacks on people with albinism have been recorded in 28 countries, with a third of the attacks — more than 170 incidents — occurring in Tanzania. And this, says Dr Burke, is a source of shame in the East African nation.
“A lot of people in Tanzania are saying 'we're so ashamed', because Tanzania actually has quite a good record for human rights and has generally been able to hold its head up amongst the African countries, some of which have had brutal dictatorships,” Dr Burke said.
“So these attacks are seen as a stain on the country’s human rights record, the fact that they haven’t been able to get on top of these superstitious beliefs.”
Dr Burke’s research has focused on media reports published between 2008 and 2011 on albinism and albino murders in Tanzania, in both English and Swahili. She found that many news articles had questioned the myths surrounding people with albinism and brought light to some of the struggles they face.
“Because of the horror of these attacks and the fact they are so newsworthy, it’s brought a lot more attention to other aspects of albinism, like the fact they have vision impairment and that they are susceptible to skin cancer,” Dr Burke said.
On the other hand, not all of the reporting on the issue had been helpful.
“There is a theory that the increased media attention has unintentionally exacerbated the problem by spreading rumours, and reporting on the prices that the limbs of people with albinism can be sold for,” Dr Burke said.
“In my view, it’s risky for reporters to mention sums of money because there are many poor people in Tanzania who struggle to have enough to eat, and if they know somebody with albinism, they may see it as an opportunity to attack them and somehow turn that into money.”
The UN workshop followed the appointment of Ikponwosa Ero as the UN’s first Independent Expert on the enjoyment of human rights by persons with albinism.
Dr Burke said the event had led to increased collaboration between researchers in the area, who hoped to continue to identify good practices in combatting the phenomena.
Dr Jean Burke has been an ACU academic since 2011, primarily maintaining a research focus on East African human rights issues. Her research on people with albinism in Tanzania can be viewed here and here.
Mariamu Staford’s charity, Asante Mariamu, is dedicated to raising awareness about the ongoing human rights crisis impacting people with albinism in East Africa.
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